Well, it would never do that he’d missed the train. She wouldn’t understand at all. Mariam was not the understanding kind. Particularly if she were inconvenienced. He sat on a bench on the platform for a long while, feeling the weight of her impending criticism descend upon him. It was so familiar, the sense of letting her down and being schooled about it, that it was almost as if he were already there with her. Their humid little kitchen would smell of Dawn and pork chop grease, her back would be to him as she washed the dishes at nearly the speed of light.
Mariam was quick at everything she did, but when she was angry, another kind of fuel kicked in to keep her jets lit high. He could gauge her irritation by the time it took her to fold laundry or sort the bills and pay them.
The evening was thick, scented with a rain to come, and in the distance he could hear the traffic that ran alongside the subway station. It was late and he was the only one waiting just now. At last he took his phone from his pocket. He stared down at it for a moment before calling home. She answered on the second ring.
“You on the way?”
“Well, I’ve run into a snag.”
“Well, there were a lot of people because the holiday-”
“The holiday is why I suggested you leave earlier,” she said. “But what about all these people?”
He held the phone away so she wouldn’t hear his sigh. Mariam hated to hear it; she would tell him to stop feeling sorry for himself.
“Of the four card machines, two were out of order, so the lines were twice as long as ever. I almost made it, ran all the way down and even scratched my leg on the escalator, but I was just a couple of seconds too late. I’m sorry, Mariam.”
She took in a breath. It sounded like she dropped something heavily on the counter. It might have been metal: a knife or a spatula maybe.
“The next one will be here in about seven minutes.”
“But you’ll miss Will,” she said. “He never waits – not even for a minute. Remember last week?”
“He saw me running across the lot. I know he did.”
“He’s kind of a prick that way.”
“Isn’t he though?” he said. Perhaps she would direct her ire at the man who always gave him a ride to the end of their drive, providing he didn’t have to wait. “It really was too much this last time. He’s so rude.”
“It’s still your fault,” she said.
“Yes, I know.”
A pause snaked between them, too long and too thin. Finally she said, “I guess I’ll drive into town when you get in, but you’ll have to call me when you pass Dunn Grave so I’ll have about five minutes.”
“Okay,” he said.
“But this has to stop. We have to get your car fixed.”
He didn’t know what to say. They both knew they couldn’t afford the repairs. As it was, they were always a month behind on the house payment. Their little house with the crack in the stoop and the stink of mildew in the bathroom, it was a little bit of nothing that even so they could scarcely afford. How did she imagine that repairing the car was going to happen?
“Call me at Dunn Grave,” she said and she rang off without a good-bye.
“Thank you,” he said a moment too late. She hadn’t heard.
When the train got beyond Mauricetown, the city glow was blotted out by the overhanging trees. If he pressed his face to the glass, he could watch the fireflies begin to light, green stars in a galaxy of woods. He noticed them last week, when he was late the last time. They weren’t visible on the earlier trip; the waning days of summer were still too bright at that time to note them. But if one missed the train and came on the very next one, there they were, something hopeful and beautiful to watch all the dreary ride homeward.
He recalled a night when he was a child, when his father was still alive. It had been the two of them and his sister, returning from the barn after feeding the animals. They spilled out into the night, the three of them, when the sky was purple all but for a ribbon of gold over the mountains.
“Do you see that?” his father whispered. The two children fell silent.
At first, like star gazing, they could not quite see the fireflies. Then they noticed one and then another and then a dozen more and finally countless lights in the dark lower pasture.
“Daddy,” his sister said.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” the man answered.
They stood in the silence and the night, hearing the throaty noises of the summer bugs, watching the green lights come and go and come again. Behind them, a few pale rectangles marked the windows of their house on the hill, but they were lost in the beauty before them and forgot everything else.
It was hard to tell how long they stood there, three side by side, so calm and happy together, unlike so many other times. Whether it was a minute or an hour, in the years after, he learned it was not long enough. Had he deliberately missed the train tonight so that he’d see these fireflies again? He wondered about that, unable to answer. There had been no broken machines at the station. He’d just sort of moved too slow, his mind elsewhere, until suddenly he heard the train departing. It would never do to let Mariam know the truth.
He was so happy to watch the fireflies of this day, pressed to the train window, that he forgot to call her as the train went through the station at Dunn Grave. Finally, it came to his own stop, the end of the line, where the parking lot lights of the sprawling commuter town wore unholy halos in the muggy evening air.
At the end of the station lot, where a strip mall butted up seamlessly, his gaze fell briefly on the spot where Will usually parked his car while at work. The slot was empty, as he already knew it would be. He faced the street toward home and started walking away from the town. He might have called Mariam, told her he couldn’t get a signal at Dunn Grave, told her he’d wait in the vestibule of the Target until she drove up to get him. Instead, he headed toward home, grim and sure of the argument that would await. He would never know why suddenly he couldn’t lie to placate her, but he trudged into the shadows of the county road like a child going to meet the strap.
When the last street light was at his back, he started to notice the fireflies again. He thought of a spot on the road ahead where he could sit and watch them; the porch steps of an empty, plain farm house overgrown with Virginia creeper. The iron gate cried out when he pressed through, and while it startled an owl out of a hole in the eaves, it did not startle him. Nothing about the house frightened him tonight, though at times he’d thought it vaguely sinister. In the autumn, if he glanced over just as his car lights flashed on the dusty window glass, he feared seeing a grim face looking out. Tonight it was merely a lonely old thing, dead inside and out, with a little of its bones poking through its outsides, like a deer rotting open on the roadside.
He sat on the step and looked out into the familiar points of light.
It had been a long time since the night that he and his sister and his father shared this simple pleasure. He remembered when the memory of it still was fresh, when he was a younger man, and he recalled that for a while it lay dormant, pushed aside by many other cares, only some his own. But since last week, it was as clear as if it had just happened. It seemed like a sort of magic was waiting to unfold. Perhaps there was an enchanted door somewhere, maybe inside the old house, that would spill him out into that other meadow and that other night. He could steal up softly beside the three figures, the tall one and two little ones. His steps would have to be still, so as not to frighten them, but if he could manage it, he’d stay as long as they had stayed and then he’d wait longer still, until the last light went out.